Forgetting as a Form of Feedback – How To Use It To Remember Better

Forgetting as a Form of Feedback - How To Use It To Remember Better


Forgetting is as integral to our lives as it is disliked. It takes many forms - from the nastiest ones, i.e. neurodegenerative diseases (e.g. Alzheimer's), to relatively innocent ones (why am I standing in front of the open refrigerator again?!)

No wonder we treat this phenomenon as our worst enemy. After all, it robs you of the fruits of your work. You have put so much work into acquiring a given skill, and after a couple of months not much is left in your head. As depressing as it all might seem, I would like to show you a different perspective.

What if forgetting is not your opponent but your ally?

Your brain is actively working to make you forget most of the things you've come into contact with. It is the most sophisticated spam filter in the world. This process allows you to focus on the most important information. In other words,

forgetting is one of the best forms of feedback.

It took me many years to understand this simple truth. It was also a turning point for me, which completely changed the memory systems I created at that time. Since, as far as I know, this concept is not widely discussed, I hope this article will be a sort of "memory awakening" for you.


What Is the Purpose of Memory?


Many people believe that the purpose of memory is to store information as accurately as possible. I think this is an erroneous perspective.

Memory serves to guide and optimize decision-making by sticking only to meaningful and valuable information.

I could describe a lot of memory processes that take place during the stage of encoding or information retrieval. Still, I think it's better to focus on a very logical and practical example.


Optimization of decision-making processes as exemplified by crossing the street


Think for a moment how much information you need to safely walk from one side of the street to the other.

While performing this activity, do you analyze:
  • Wind speed?
  • Type of surface?
  • The number of people in front of you?
  • The number of people on your sides?
  • The distance you have to travel?
  • Air humidity?
  • Surface moisture?

Of course not.

Too much irrelevant information is detrimental to a given decision-making process.

If you really had to take into account all this information, it would take you forever to make any decision at all. In other words, the process would not be optimal, also energy-wise.


Thus, it is much easier to focus on activities such as:
  • checking if there are traffic lights at the crosswalk,
  • making sure the light is green,
  • looking to your left and right (and left again).

As you can see, a handful of relevant information can be more valuable to the brain than a ton of meaningless data. However, we shouldn't forget that it doesn't make sense to remember much—quite the contrary. The trick is to combine the memorized information into meaningful scripts that can be activated in a given situation.

In the example above, a type of surface is almost certainly a useless piece of information. Nevertheless, if our decision-making process required making sure that we can do a dangerous stunt on the said surface, it would be one of the first factors that should be taken into consideration.


What Kind of Information Is Meaningful To Your Brain?


Forgetting


Another question we have to answer is what information the brain perceives as valuable, and what information is the equivalent of food scraps at the bottom of the dishwasher.


In simple terms, information must meet two main criteria to be considered valuable:
  • frequently appear in your immediate environment,
  • it must be related to your life, i.e. be relevant to you.

I will discuss them in more detail later in this article. At the moment, it is worth looking at how slowly we forget information when the above two criteria are met.


Almost Complete Elimination of Forgetting



Problems with research on memory


One of the big problems that plague most of the memory studies is that they are often detached from reality. The overwhelming majority of them are carried out in laboratories. I know what you are thinking. Why would that be a disadvantage?

Laboratories are artificial creations which, according to the rules of the scientific method, try to limit the number of variables that affect the tested value as much as possible. It sounds nice until we realize that our memory does not work in a vacuum. Hundreds of stimuli and information constantly flood our minds. One should not try to artificially separate them from the process of memorizing and retrieving data.

The effect is that most such studies come to conclusions that are as out of touch with reality as a team of Marvel superheroes from a nearby asylum.

What's even worse is that there are quite a few people who accept this nonsense uncritically. I often hear some strange websites or YT channels saying that "in this or that study, scientists proved (sic!) that if you imagine that you have an orange on the top of your head, your ability to remember and concentrate will increase by 15%".

I wish it were an anecdote, but the video had over 100k views and lots of positive comments at the time. In my mind's eye, I could almost see 20,000 people sitting with their eyes rolled over and the face of a constipated walrus wondering why memorizing books didn't get any easier.


Forgetting names - Bahrick's and Wittlinger's research


Bahrick is one of my favorite memory researchers. He was one of the first scientists to insist that research of this kind be carried out outside the laboratory, despite the difficulties it poses.

One of his groundbreaking works, which he did in 1975 with Wittlinger, is about remembering the names and faces of high school friends over many years. The study lasted 50 years (!!!), and it showed for many years after graduating from high school, the process of forgetting this information occurred only slightly. Although, as always, the active recall was the first to go.



You can conduct this experiment virtually. Assuming a minimum of 10 years has passed since you have graduated from high school, check if you can still remember everyone in your class? I know I certainly didn't have almost any problems with it.


How to explain the almost complete absence of forgetting over a long period?


In one of my past articles, I mentioned the Ebbinghaus curve:


the Ebbinghaus curve - Forgetting as a Form of Feedback


Notice how huge the difference in retention (i.e., keeping the information in your head) is between Bahrick's and Ebbinghaus's experiment. Even after 7 years, the retention of names was higher than the retention of meaningless knowledge presented by the Ebbinghaus curve after 20 minutes.

The explanation for this phenomenon is based on many elements. 


1. High frequency of repetitions

Note that the contact with first and last names in high school is extremely common, be it during the roll call or the regular socialization with your peers. What's more, almost all children are forced continuously to retrieve this knowledge. It would be difficult to get through high school only by yelling, "Hey you!"



2. Relevance of the information

Ebbinghaus tested the information decay by memorizing nonsense letter clusters. Bahrick, on the other hand, demonstrated how we absorb vital information in the real world.

It is worth mentioning that the relevance of information automatically means one more thing - emotional load. It doesn't matter if it's positive or negative. It is an inherent factor modulating your ability to remember.

The meaningfulness of the information is a very personal and individual thing. Two different people may perceive the same facts as useless or vital. It is reflected in another one of Bahrick's (1984) studies, that showed that college professors have difficulties with remembering their students' name.

Can you see that contrast? Of course, one might argue that the frequency of information, in this case, is much lower. However, in my opinion, the decisive factor here is the indifference of lecturers. Most students are as important to them as half-dried pigeon carrion on the side of the road.

Of course, we could name more factors that contributed to the almost complete absence of forgetting in the first study. However, I think that the ones mentioned above are the most important.


Forgetting as a Form of Feedback, I.e. What Information Does It Provide You With?


The example above does not seem to be fully related to subjects such as physics, foreign languages or medicine. Regardless, I hope it convinced you of one thing - the frequency and relevance of information are among the most critical factors affecting your ability to remember information.

Thus, from now on, I would like you to change your mind about the phenomenon of forgetting. Don't see it as something negative.

Treat forgetting as the best possible form of feedback.

If you can't keep information in your head, your brain is trying to subtly say, "Hey buddy! Don't even try to make me remember this string of numbers. I don't know; I don't understand, I don't care. When are we going to do something exciting like tap dancing in banana peel shoes? 

Whenever you cannot recall information, you should ask yourself, "How can I modify it so that it makes more sense to my brain?"


Forgetting as a Form of Feedback - Three Main Takeaways



1. Too little interaction with the information


Consider whether you should increase the frequency of a given element. If you use programs like ANKI, it happens organically to some degree.



2. No connection between the element and your background knowledge


Forgetting as a Form of Feedback

 

Your brain is a very practical sponge. If it finds no connection between an item and the rest of the information you have in mind, it considers that item to be irrelevant. Thus, this information is forgotten very quickly (see Ebbinghaus forgetting curve).

If you want to remember a given piece of information, there is nothing to prevent more than one flashcard from encoding a given word or concept.


3. Lack of the relevance of the information


The relevance of information always means one thing - emotional load. It is the basis of the so-called affective learning that is related to feelings and emotions.

If you are trying to learn information that has nothing to do with your life, it will not evoke any feelings in you either.

Think of it as a date, if your potential partner sparks as much passion in you as the thrilling acting of Kristen Stewart, will you remember it? I doubt it. You come home, douse yourself with bleach, you disinfect yourself from the inside and life goes on. For the same reason, we pay attention to items that stand out - they simply spur more emotions. 


You are the one who is supposed to find the reasons why the information is relevant and meaningful.


The enormous mistake people make while learning is waiting until this magical connection between some abstract concept and real life materializes itself out of thin air. Nothing could be more wrong.

If you want to learn quickly and effectively, you have to look for such connections yourself. Think about how many thousands of practical examples of different types of concepts were shown to you at school. They ranged from history, through physics to economics. Now think how much of it honestly is still kicking around in your brain.


Effective learning is measured by the amount of effort you put into the information encoding process, not by time.

If I chew an exquisite dish for you and spit this slimy mass onto a silver tray, you won't probably find it appetizing. Your brain reacts the same to the information that someone else has digested.

Of course, finding relevance can also be a natural process. Remembering all the symptoms of diabetes doesn't seem like a significant thing. You need more room in your head for more important things like memorizing all names of all the Pokemon.

However, do you think that something would change in your head if your spouse were diagnosed with this disease? Without a doubt. You would immediately begin to absorb this knowledge and remember it well for a long time. This is the power of the relevance of information.


Forgetting as a Form of Feedback - Summary


Forgetting is stigmatized nowadays with a passion that characterizes naturopaths promoting coffee enemas. However, this is a short-sighted approach. 

The inability to recall the information in question is nothing more than your brain, saying that it doesn't care.

Although there are many forms of feedback, hardly any of them is as valuable to adults as forgetting. After all, it does require teachers or coaches. A program such as ANKI and a bit of introspection is enough.  

  • Forgetting is a natural spam filter that helps us separate relevant information from the noise.
  • What's more, the primary purpose of forgetting is to optimize decision-making processes.
  • Forgetting should be seen as feedback from your brain. If you can't remember a given piece of information:
    - it doesn't often occur enough in your direct learning environment
    - it is not relevant to you in any way
    - it probably does not evoke any emotions
  • Remember, it's your job to find the relevance of the information to your life. No one else can do it for you.

Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 19 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.



What Is Smart Learning and How to Apply It to Become a Better Learner

What is smart learning and how to apply it to become a better learner?

Contrary to popular belief, not all learning leads to enlightenment and self-development. Oftentimes, lousy learning practices can lead to the contrary. Instead of acquiring in-depth and meaningful knowledge, you end up learning random and superficial pieces of information of questionable credibility.

In other words, stupid learning can turn out to be a waste of time, whereas smart learning will, unsurprisingly, make you smart. As such, it should be a priority for any self-respecting student or professional.

Unfortunately, most people learn by feel. Partly because of the undisciplined approach to knowledge acquisition and somewhat because smart learning has become a bit of a trite slogan in recent years. We all know we should do it, but hardly anyone knows what it is.

Let's tackle this topic step by step.


What is smart learning?


There are 5 key traits that characterize smart learning.


1. Optimizing your reviews


If you still haven't got the news. We have known for over 140 years that optimizing reviews allows us to slow down memory decay. About that time, a brilliant German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus proved that we ​could significantly slow down memory decay by revising the learning material at the right moment.


The famous Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve depicts this phenomenon.


smart learning


You would think that 140 years is plenty of time, but I assure you it's not. The concept of optimizing your reviews is still relatively unknown. Spaced Repetition Software, which allows you to revise learning material at the optimal intervals automatically, is nowhere to be found in public schools or at universities. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between.

Keep in mind that using programs like ANKI is not the ultimate solution. Yes, using it will certainly make you a better learner than about 70% of the population.

However, what makes it really effective is using it correctly, i.e., applying the right learning methods while reviewing information in ANKI. Spaced repetition algorithms are your white canvass, but you also have to know how to paint to get the best effects.

Read more: Why most spaced repetition apps don't work and how to fix it



2. Choosing the right learning materials


There are 2 types of sources of information:

  1. Primary sources
  2. Secondary sources


(1) Primary sources

Primary sources refer to previously established scientific facts (e.g., math, physics, and chemistry textbooks) or firsthand, fundamental research that is based upon observations or experiments (e.g., research articles in journals).


(2) Secondary sources

Secondary sources or secondhand sources refer to any learning resource which loosely relates to the primary resources and/or interprets them in a certain way (e.g., interviews, YT videos, etc.).


Roles of both sources of information

Both types of sources can be very useful in learning. The first one provides you with the certainty that the information you acquire is true.

Secondary sources, on the other hand, can help you make sense out of that information.

Sometimes hearing somebody's opinion on some matter can help you connect the dots and arrive at the right conclusion.


Always prioritize primary sources

As long as you focus on relentlessly acquiring knowledge from the primary sources, you can rest assured that your expertise will keep on growing and will be of the highest quality.

The problem arises when you try to derive a big chunk of your knowledge from secondhand sources. It always means one thing — you suspend your right to have any meaningful opinion.

You scarf down any crap which people dish out. And make no mistake. There are very few people who put in time and effort to really learn something.

Most simply regurgitate different anecdotes and old wives' tales to boost their ego.

Unless you prioritize learning from the primary sources, you will never be able to tell what's true and what's not.


Trust the facts, not the experts. Way too many people have their own agenda and have no problem with profiting from the naivety and ignorance of the others.


If you want to see for yourself how wide-spread that behavior is, go ahead and look up some popular language-learning websites. You will be lucky to find even one quotation on most of them.

As Dr. Johnson so wisely observed, truth is hard to assimilate in any mind when opposed by interest. Moreover, strong feelings about issues do not usually  emerge from deep understanding and knowledge.


3. Knowing what you can forget


WHAT IS SMART LEARNING


I have stated many times that if you want to be excellent in your area of choice, you need to remember tons of information and know how to connect in a meaningful way.

However, it doesn't mean that you literally have to suck in everything. With all due respect to the hard-working scientific community, when I read medical or memory studies, I rarely care who has written them. I won't waste any brainpower to remember it.

Why? Because ANKI is also a browseable database! If I need to look up the authors of a certain study, I can get this information within seconds.

You should always try to separate the worthwhile from the wooly.

It won't always be obvious to establish what's relevant and what's not. Sometimes only time will tell. There were times when I started memorizing random stuff only to realize after some time that I don't need to know it by heart. 

In other words, figuring out what's worth memorizing requires some trial and error, and it's heavily dependent on the depth of knowledge you want to acquire and on the conditions you will retrieve it in.

Definitely, one important criterion which can help you guide this decision process is choosing whether you want to master a certain discipline or be decent/good at it. 

Personally, I wouldn't decide to learn a lot of scripts or commands by heart if I was just programming for fun. However, if you want to learn a programming language to the "native" level of familiarity, you can't be too picky. In return, that will allow you to sketch out personal utility software, scripts, and hacks rapidly.


4. Choosing the right learning strategies


Choosing the right learning strategies depends on a lot of factors. However, there are two crucial elements that you need to incorporate if you want to become a successful learner.


Have a learning system

Let me make it very clear — you can't become good in your area of choice without an organized system of acquiring knowledge.

This is the basis of any learning success. Skipping this part makes as much sense as trying to build your house from the second floor.


Stop learning passively

The idea that we can acquire information effectively by reading or listening is as rife as antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea. Yes, you can learn this way, but this process is excruciatingly slow.

It doesn't matter how many relevant scientific studies get produced every year that show that passive learning is useless. The illusion of learning always seems to have the upper hand.

Students who engage in active learning learn more -- but feel like they learn less -- than peers in more lecture-oriented classrooms.

When memory researcher Jennifer McCabe posed a similar question to college students, she found an overwhelming preference for the second strategy, restudying, even though this approach is known to be inferior to the recall method in this situation.

Why did the students get it wrong? 

Most likely, they based their answers on their own experience. They knew that when they finished reading material over and over, they felt confident in their memory. The facts seemed clear and fresh. They popped into mind quickly and easily as the students reviewed them. This is not always so when recalling facts in a self-test—more effort is often required to bring the facts to mind, so they don’t seem as solid. From a student’s point of view, it can seem obvious which method—restudying—produces better learning. Robert Bjork refers to this as an “illusion of competence” after restudying.

The student concludes that she knows the material well based on the confident mastery she feels at that moment. And she expects that the same mastery will be there several days later when the exam takes place. But this is unlikely. The same illusion of competence is at work during cramming when the facts feel secure and firmly grasped. While that is indeed true at the time, it’s a mistake to assume that long-lasting memory strength has been created.

Illusions of competence are seductive. They can easily mislead people into misjudging the strength of their memory, and they can encourage students to adopt study methods that undermine long-term retention. The best defense is to use proven memory techniques and to be leery of making predictions about future memory strength based on how solid the memory seems right now

Here are other articles concerning passive learning:

5. Concentrating On What’s Evergreen!


BECOME A BETTER LEARNER

Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

One of the best ways of amassing impressive knowledge within a relatively short period is concentrating on what's evergreen. Even though it's not possible in every single case, I believe that this is something we all should strive for. Political leaders will change, programming languages will evolve, but physics, math, and even psychology will remain almost unchanged at their core.

Focusing on those subjects will allow you to build evergreen knowledge that can be applied almost everywhere regardless of circumstances. What's more, the more you learn, the easier it will be for you to expand your knowledge. Every discipline contains nuggets of wisdom that can be transplanted into other areas.

Most of relevant theories of learning to acknowledge that learners’ knowledge bases are the most important moderating factor influencing our ability to acquire information (e.g., Chi, De Leeuw, Chiu, & LaVancher, 1994; Graesser, Singer, & Trabasso, 1994).

In other words, the more of such knowledge you gather, the quicker you will be able to learn!

Does it mean that you should try to master all the big disciplines? Of course not (unless you want to). Be picky and adjust your choices to your needs.

Whatever you do, remember this. Acquiring evergreen knowledge is an investment that will keep on giving and will never go to waste.


WHAT ARE EXAMPLES OF EVERGREEN KNOWLEDGE?

  1. 1
    The exact sciences (math, physics, etc.)
  2. 2
    The art of persuasion
  3. 3
    The science of memory and productivity
  4. 4
    Popular languages
  5. 5
    The basic nutritional and medical information
  6. 6
    The basic financial knowledge
  7. 7
    Creativity

Summary — What is smart learning and how to apply it to become a better learner?



Smart learning is a fantastic learning philosophy. I am not only its big fan, but I also practice it every single day myself.

It can be seen as the best of the worlds, i.e., productivity and the science of memory.

At its core, smart learning involves 5 key elements which, if applied correctly, can help you to learn faster and become a better learner:

  1. 1
    Optimizing your reviews
  2. 2
    Choosing the right learning materials
  3. 3
    Knowing what you can forget
  4. 4
    Choosing the right learning strategies
  5. 5
    Concentrating On What’s Evergreen!

Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 23 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


Why Is It Difficult to Recall Vocabulary and How to Fix It?

The phenomenon of retrieving words at will seems to be almost magical. The mere intention of wanting to use any of them recalls them effortlessly and in no time.

Hah! You wish!

The truth is that most of us look like constipated capuchin monkeys trying to poop out a screwdriver when we try to retrieve vocab! It’s difficult and it sure as hell doesn’t come easy.

Why is it so?

Well, first of all, the universe is a cruel place and probably hates you.Other than that there are some other memory-related reasons for that state of affairs.

Since I can’t do anything about the universe, let’s concentrate on the latter.

 

Difference between remembering and retrieving a word

 

Let’s start with a very different distinction between remembering a piece of information and retrieving it. Contrary to common knowledge and intuition, they are not the same.

To explain this concept, let’s look at a simple model of memory.

  1. encoding
  2. storage
  3. retrieval

As you can clearly see that first you have to encode (memorize) a piece of information and only then can you retrieve it.

It means that:

 

a) you can remember something but you might not be able to retrieve it.

b) if you can retrieve something you certainly remember it.

 

The infamous tip-of-the-tongue feeling refers to the so-called failure to retrieve error,

If you want to improve your chance of recalling an item you need to improve its retrievability.

 

What is retrievability?

Long-term memories can be characterized by two elements: Stability (S) and Retrievability (R) are part of the Two-component model of long-term memory.

 

Retrievability of memory is a variable of long-term memory that determines the probability of retrieving a memory at any given time since the last review/recall.

 

I would like to direct your attention to the word “probability”. You can never be certain that you will be able to retrieve a given memory. It all depends on a plethora of factors. But what you can do is increase your odds.

Let’s dig deeper.

 

Fundamentals – Retrieval Cues

 

Whydifficult to recall vocabulary

 

Before we move on, you need to familiarize yourself with some basic memory concepts. Only then will you be able to fully understand why you can’t recall a word and how to change it.

Everything starts with a retrieval CUE.

 

A Retrieval Cue is a prompt that help us remember. When we make a new memory, we include certain information about the situation that act as a trigger to access the memory. Source: AlleyDog

 

As you can see, literally everything can be a cue! Let’s say that you meet a nice girl. The way she looks is a cue. Actually, every piece of her garment is a cue. The weather is a cue. The look of disgust on her face as you empty yet another cup of beer and whisper gently into her ear, ” Shh. Let the magic happen” is another great example of a cue.

The sound of your feet being dragged across the dirt by the security is yet another cue.

What? No. That did not happen to me! Mind your own business! Let’s get back to science!

Saying that everything is a cue is a bit lazy, isn’t it? I think you will be able to understand them much better once you see how they are typically categorized.

And don’t worry. This is not an exercise in futility. This info will come handy.

 

Types of retrieval cues

Gillian Cohen in her book Memory In the Real World distinguishes the following cues:

  • External cues were ones that came from the environment.
  • Abstract (aka internal) cues were all thoughts or linguistic references to the original episode.
  • Sensory/perceptual cues were those that provided sensory/perceptual referents to the original episode.

Sensory cues can be further categorized as visual cues, auditory cues, haptic cues, olfactory cues, environmental cues, and so on.

  • State cues were physiological or emotional referents to the original episode

I hope that now it’s easier for you to understand that literally everything can be a cue – starting from a thought and ending with a smell.

Then, you might wonder, if there are so many of them, how come you still have trouble retrieving memories or words?

The easiest answer is that you need to use the right cues.

 

Memory principles governing recall

 

There are a couple of general rules which will help you with understanding when it is usually possible to retrieve a word.

 

1) The encoding specificity

Somewhere in the 70s, a psychologist by the name of Endel Tulving proposed a theory called the encoding specificity principle.

It states that:

 

Successful recall relies on the overlap between the thing you are trying to remember and the situation in which you first encountered it, and the cues or prompts that are available when you are trying to recall it”.

 

This gives us our first rule:

 

The more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.

 

Let’s stress it one more time – it’s not guaranteed that you will recall desired words.Meeting the said conditions simply increases the likelihood of retrieving them.

 

Example:

Let’s say that you memorized (actively) the word “cat” in the following phrase: “a black cat”.If at any given time during a conversation, you decide to use this phrase, it will most likely come to the top of your mind.

But what happens if you decide to use this word in another phrase:”a wild cat”? Assuming that you already know actively the word “wild”, there is a chance that you will be able to string this sentence together.However, the likelihood of this is definitely smaller than in the previous example as you have probably never ever made such a mental connection before. This leads to problems with so-called “information transfer“.

 

If you memorized some word in only one context, your mind can cling to it so tightly that it won’t be able to transfer a given item into another context.

 

Any time you use a given word in one part of a conversation and then can’t use it in another one,you run into exactly this problem.

 

Fun fact

Interestingly, these rules stay true regardless of the relevance of the information you are trying to retrieve.

 

“When short-range contextual dependencies are preserved in nonsense material, the nonsense is as readily recalled as is meaningfull material.” – The Changing English Language: Psycholinguistic Perspectives

 

Side note: Now, when I am reading this sentence I think that I need to go out more often.I have a strange definition of “fun”.

 

2) The strength of associations

Another aspect of successful retrieval is how strong your associations are. I think that it is intuitively understandable that the stronger the association between the cue and the target information the bigger your chance of retrieving an item is.

However, make no mistake:

 

The strength of your association is still not as important as the match between features of recall and features of encoding (Pansky et al., 2005; Roediger & Guynn, 1996).

Example

Imagine that you are eating peacefully your breakfast in a hotel abroad and all of a suddensome cat jumps on a table and gracefully puts its paw into your cereal bowl.

You think for a second how to word your outrage in a language of your choice andthen you finally cry out “I will skin you alive, you sack of fleas!”.

From now on, every time you decide to express your outrage in a similar situationthe chance of using exactly this phrase increases.

3) Number of cues

 

 

Edward Vul and Nisheeth Srivastava presented another interesting perspective. Namely, the process of retrieval is the process of retrieving cues that anchor the said item.

From this it follows that:

  • recognition performance is superior to recall performance when the number of items is greater than the number of cues
  • recall performance is better than recognition when the converse holds.

It means that the bigger the number of words you want to memorize, the bigger the number of cues you need.

 

Don’t overdo it – a cue overload effect

There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing. If you decide to go over the top and insert too many cues into a piece of information you are trying to memorize you might notice that your recall rate didn’t change.

It happens so because:

 

If retrieval cues are not recognized as being distinct from one another, then cues are likely to become associated with more information, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of the cue in prompting the recall of target information (Watkins & Watkins, 1975).

 

Example

Let’s say that you want to memorize a two-word phrase “a disgusting slob”. If you just create a flashcard and then try to din it into your head, there is a good chance you won’t succeed.

The number of cues is minimal here. You can just see these words visually.

In other words, you are using one sensory cue. But as you know now, there are quite many different kinds of cues.

You can dollop more of them on top of this one.

  1. You can add a sound (another sensory cue)
  2. You can say it out loud (internal and sensory cue)
  3. You can modulate your emotions (state cues)

Instead of just saying a phrase, you can shout it out angrily.Win-win! Unless you shout it out on a bus, of course.

It’s worth mentioning that it’s a slight simplification of a problem as it doesn’t factor inthe capacity of our short-term memory.

 

4) Distinctivity of cues

The last (important) piece of a puzzle is how distinct your cues are.

 

In order to increase the likelihood of recalling a verbatim-based piece of information, you need distinct retrieval cues (Anderson, 1983a; Anderson & Reder, 1999; Tuckey 743 & Brewer, 2003).

 

But why do we need distinct retrieval cues?

 

Shortly, recall of one item can prompt further recall of semantically related items (Collins & Loftus, 1975). This occurs through the spread of activation through the associative links of the memory network. Gillian Cohen – Memory In the Real World

 

You can think about it as a domino effect. One element leads us to another.

How to build good cues 

 

difficult to recall and retrieve vocabulary

 

Good quality retrieval cues often have:

  • (1) constructability (cues generated at encoding can be reliably reproduced at recall);
  • (2) consistency between encoding and retrieval within a given context  (i.e. an effective retrieval cue should be compatible with the memory trace created during encoding and show high cue-target match);
  • (3) strong associations with the target and the ability to be easily associated with newly learned information;
  • (4) bidirectionality of association (the cue recalling target information, and target information recalling the cue).
  • (5) It is also important that retrieval cues are distinctive or discriminable.

Think about those rules as guidelines. Applying them will definitely increase your odds of retrieving an item.

However, don’t go too crazy and try to apply all of them every time when you try to memorize something. If anything, you should increase the number of cues only for the words you have trouble remembering.

 

Examples of learning methods which impede retrievability

 

In the world of learning, there are a lot of methods and approaches which don’t work at allor which can be used only in the specific cases.

I would like to complete your understanding of this topic by giving you a couple of examplesof strategies which don’t follow the aforementioned framework and thus, will mostly hinder your learning

 

Mnemonics

As I have argued before, mnemonics are a great addition to your learning toolkit.However, you shouldn’t treat them as anything more than just a temporary extension of your short-term memory.

Let’s look at the quickest way to retrieve a word in a conversation.

 

PHRASE YOU LEARN       PHRASE YOU RETRIEVEencoding cue             ->      retrieval cue (identical or similar to the encoding cue) = success

 

Quite straightforward, isn’t it?

Now here is the path of retrieval when you decide to use mnemonics:

 

a big cat  -> looking for associations -> turning them into pictures -> placing them in some location -> decoding them -> retrieval

 

As you can see, we are adding a lot of unnecessary steps into the process of retrieval. The usual effect is that you:

  • a) don’t remember them after a couple of days/weeks
  • b) you remember them but can’t recall them since you have no real context for these items

 

Associations

Associations are certainly a useful learning tool. The problems occur when there are too many of them. In my line of work, I have met people who were obsessed with finding an associationfor every possible piece of information.

The thing is that the associations, just like mnemonics, can at best help you with remembering the word but not retrieving it.

 

A couple of associations are great because they are distinct.However, there is nothing distinct and special about 100 associations.

 

Another problem is that once again you are lengthening the process of retrieving a word

 

encoding information -> building an association -> decoding an association -> retrieval

(a cat) -> (it sounds similar to a candy bar ” Kit Kat -> (now you want to use the word in a conversation) it was something connected with a candy bar -> I bought a new Snickers!

Teaching/learning styles

 

difficult to recall vocabulary and retrieve it

 

I have mentioned before in a couple of articles that learning styles don’t exist (read about it more here).Sure, you can have preferences for a giving style of learning but that does not mean that this styleof learning will be more effective memory-wise.

Sure enough, there is a host of studies which suggest that even teaching styles have no influenceon the students’ ability to recall information.

If you have ever had a teacher who hired a throng of merry and naked gnomes in orderto sing you a lengthy list of historical dates then I have bad news for you.

Although, you have to appreciate the effort, right?

 

How to maximize your chances of recalling words – Summary

 

Time to recap everything you have learned so far about maximizing your chances of recalling something. But let’s do it in plain English this time.

 

  • 1. You should be the person who generates cues

If you download ready-to-use flashcards or use apps like Duolingo and then whine that you can’t learn then there’s your explanation.

 

High levels of recall usually occur when the cue is self-generated (Hunt & Smith, 1996).

 

  • 2. Retrieve vocabulary in different conditions

If you just sit at home and pore over a computer or books you are encoding and retrieving items in the same conditions and that clearly hinders their retrievability.

As you already know in order to retrieve a piece of information we need to use good cues.

Remember:

 

Retrieval is a selective process, relying on a complex interaction between encoded information and features of the retrieval environment (Tulving & Thomson, 1973).

 

  • 3. Memorize natural phrases / collocations

One more time – the more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.

Let’s say that you want to learn the word “a bike”. You decide to put it into the following phrase which you will later memorize “a bike made with light alloys”.

If you have never ever heard yourself saying such a phrase in your native tongue then what are you doing?! Use something simpler and more natural, for example, “a new bike”.

P.S. Here you can read more about choosing the best learning methods.

Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created 32 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go.